Thursday, March 27, 2014

Nothing to Envy

I recently finished the book Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick. The book is a compilation of stories from North Korean defectors, taken from six years of interviews of a hundred defectors. I was completely engrossed by the narrative that followed six defectors' lives from the death of Kim Il Sung, through the catastrophic famine of the mid-90s and the rise of the "underground railroad", up until the currency reform of 2009.

I've come away from the book reeling slightly, because it's hard to process the naked truth -- to be presented with real human evidence -- of North Korea's misery. A woman who watched her husband and son die of starvation. Her rebellious daughter who became mired in the underground business of trafficking defectors out of the country. An orphaned boy who skipped school to forage for food and learned nothing but how to survive.

The North Korea that they described matched the North Korea that I saw when I visited uncannily well. Even though I was mostly shown the relatively glitzy capital city, there was no denying that the country is in shambles. In the five years since Nothing to Envy was published, the DPRK went ahead with its Kim Il Sung centennial celebrations, financed extravagant renovations in the capital, and saw a power change from the Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. Yet the brutality of the isolated and self-serving regime and the consequent humanitarian crisis continue. I was saddened when I realized that I was reading recent history during the chapters about the Arduous March: When I was growing up healthy and happy, children in North Korea were dying by the thousands. And then I was horrified when the atrocities kept on being recounted all the way into the past decade: When I was in college enjoying my freedom, adults in North Korea were risking their lives to get out of the deadly prison their country had become.

Now that I'm living in South Korea, our neighbors from the north are both easier and more difficult to ignore. While the bizarre DPRK government is portrayed in popular media as the forsworn enemy and its antics are noted in newspapers daily (and with increasing indifference), the spotlight is rarely shown on its people, especially those who leave and wind up here.

There are North Korean defectors living in my city, quite unnoticed. Nobody expects them. Nobody expects people to be different as long as they appear to fit in on the surface. In order to find their place in a hyper-competitive, trend-following, 빨리빨리 culture, they must change their clothes, hair, and speech. In order to land a stable job or become upwardly mobile, they must learn English. In order to discover self-worth and heal from past trauma...

The current defector resettlement program is a huge social experiment to see if a stable, equitable society is possible in the case of reunification under Southern democracy. To that end, South Korea wants its defector citizens to assimilate, to shed their northern identities, to forget the land they've come from.

But knowing what I know now, I simply don't think that it's possible to forget.

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